How to hunt for deer antler sheds

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Vayda with antlers
Vayda found these antler sheds on March 22, 2020, under a couple of pine trees near her yard. (Sara Welch photo)

I’ve never intentionally gone shed hunting, but my daughter, Vayda, and I have been lucky enough to find antler sheds in the spring on a couple of occasions. Vayda has an eye for deer antler sheds.

She was only four years old when she found her first deer antler. We were walking through a cornfield at my grandma’s house in early spring during one of our Thursday visits. At the time, there were a couple of miniature ponies in the pasture adjacent to the cornfield and Vayda liked visiting them. She picked up the broken antler and asked why her stick looked so funny. I was shocked when I confirmed it was an antler on closer inspection.

She was proud to show off her find to my grandma and mom. And she was even more pleased when my dad told her how impressed he was later that evening.

I wouldn’t say a hobby was born. She didn’t find her next antler sheds until she was eight years old, and again, by total coincidence. This time a couple of mature bucks had each dropped an antler next to our house, just out of the yard under the cover of the pine trees sheltering where they liked to bed down. 

We had only moved in six months prior to the find. Although we regularly observed the deer feeding on the apple trees in the backyard at dawn and dusk, we hadn’t realized they slept and migrated through the pines that bordered our yard.

When Vayda came running out of the woods with the large antlers, we thought she may have found a set. But after further inspection, we realized the antlers she had found had to have come from two different deer.

Dropping and growing antlers

Every year a buck deer grows a new set of antlers. The process starts after they shed last year’s rack sometime between late January and early March. Their antlers fall off because their hormone levels decrease after breeding season. If winter has been particularly tough and food sources have been scarce, deer may shed their antlers earlier than normal.

Once their antlers have been shed, they begin growing a new rack. Most bucks will have noticeable velvet-covered nubs by May. The new antlers will continue to grow through September. During late summer, the antlers will harden and the velvet outer covering will be rubbed off on small trees and shrubs. Bucks also use their antlers to spar with competing bucks in their territory and establish dominance in preparation for breeding season that begins in October and ends in December.

February through March is an ideal time to look for deer antler sheds because they will be in the best condition and the easiest to spot. After the snow melts before the spring vegetation starts to green up and grow thicker deer antlers will be the easiest to see. Additionally, finding them soon after they are shed is better because rodents will find antlers that have been laying on the ground for a while and gnaw on them for their minerals and to wear down their teeth.

How to find deer antler sheds

Scout during winter. Deer often seek places with food availability and cover during the winter. Looking for deer tracks in the snow is a great way to locate the places they frequent. Deer are most active at dusk so this is the best time to try and observe active deer.

Bucks stick together. Bucks separate from does and fawns during winter and travel in groups with other bucks. An area where you found one shed will often have others from bucks in the same group.

Look in areas that aren’t heavily hunted. Fewer bucks survive in heavily hunted areas, so areas that are not hunted can be the best places to find antler sheds.

Locate food sources. Locating food sources is a great way to narrow down places deer have frequented throughout the winter. But they aren’t necessarily the same places deer frequented during the fall.  Sometimes agricultural fields become hotspots after harvest; however, woody browse in woodlots are also a favorite food source for deer in winter. Learn to identify which plants deer prefer. Oak and other late-producing mast trees attract deer during winter.

Look around bedding areas. Deer spend a lot of time in their beds conserving energy during the winter. They prefer coniferous woodlots because they provide dense cover from the wind and snow. Tall grasses, brushy thickets and heavily wooded areas are other common bedding sites. They also prefer areas that are south-facing to maximize the amount of direct sunlight they get. The southern edges of a forest or the south face of a hill would be ideal for deer during winter. The best time to check bedding areas is around ducks when deer vacate them to forage.

Check around obstacles on travel paths. Deer make travel paths from their food source to their bedding area. Once you’ve located a travel path, look for sheds near obstacles like fences or ditches. Sudden movements caused by jumping and running can knock antlers lose.

Walk slowly and have a keen eye. Walking slowly allows your eyes more time to separate antlers from broken sticks and corn stalks. Train your eyes to look for parts of antlers instead of the entire antler, so you don’t walk past a shed.

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